Home News Joe Bonsall, country-gospel star with the Oak Ridge Boys, dies from ALS...

Joe Bonsall, country-gospel star with the Oak Ridge Boys, dies from ALS at 76

Joe Bonsall, the country music tenor who became a star with the Oak Ridge Boys, died Tuesday at age 76.

Bonsall died from complications of ALS, which he battled for several years and forced him off the road in January, according to a statement from the group.

“Joe loved to sing,” the statement read. “He loved to read. He loved to write. He loved to play banjo. He loved working on the farm. And he loved the Philadelphia Phillies. But Jesus and his family always came first — and we will see him again on the Promised Day.”

Bonsall joined the Oak Ridge Boys in 1973 and was part of the group during their massive commercial success of the 1980s, which included hits such as “Elvira,” “Bonnie Sue” and “American Made.”

The band became a touring mainstay for decades, with their crowd-pleasing combination of gospel, country and pop. Bonsall was on the road often during his five decades with the group, before stepping aside earlier this year as ALS impacted his life.

“I am now at a point where walking is impossible, so I have basically retired from the road. It has just gotten too difficult,” he said in January. “It has been a great 50 years, and I am thankful to all the Oak Ridge Boys, band, crew and staff for the constant love and support shown to me through it all.”

Born May 18, 1948, in Philadelphia, Bonsall’s music career took him to Harrisburg and Buffalo with different gospel groups before he moved to Hendersonville, Tenn., and joined the Oak Ridge Boys.

The group itself had been through turbulent times since it was founded in the 1940s, with multiple massive lineup changes and little commercial success to speak of. Even a cosign from Johnny Cash in 1973 and a record deal with Columbia couldn’t propel them to success.

But in 1977, the Oak Ridge Boys released “Y’all Come Back Saloon,” and their run of country dominance began.

“In 1977 we knew we were on our way to making it when ‘Y’all Come Back Saloon’ was on every jukebox in the country,” Bonsall told Ellicottville Now in 2023. “You’d see four guys feeding the boxes quarters so they could play the song over and over again. It’s a wonder we didn’t get beat with a tire iron.”

“Elvira,” originally recorded in 1966 by Dallas Frazier, became the group’s biggest hit in 1981, topping the country charts and reaching No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Oak Ridge Boys eventually racked up 17 No. 1 country hits through 1990.

Along with his work as a singer, Bonsall also penned 10 books, including a four-part children’s series. His 11th book, a memoir called “I See Myself,” is scheduled for release in November.

“I’m heartbroken to hear of my friend Joe Bonsall’s passing,” country star Blake Shelton wrote Tuesday on social media. “I’ve NEVER seen Joe when he wasn’t smiling and completely full of life. He absolutely loved singing like no one I ever met. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and his Oak Ridge Boys brothers. We all lost a special person today.”

Bonsall is survived by his wife, Mary Ann; daughters Jennifer and Sabrina; sister, Nancy, and two grandchildren.


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